The most beautiful thing

Gerdien Verschoor

‘What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?’ That is the question that the designer duo Viktor&Rolf asked 99 Dutch academics, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists. Their answers were recently gathered together in the book Dit is het mooiste ooit. Nederland in ideeën 2016, which gives a surprising insight into the many forms of beauty that touch people deeply. The museum director, not surprisingly, chose his most beautiful painting, the literary theorist his most beautiful poem, and the planetary scientist the launch of the Atlas V rocket to Mars. But what do people choose if the most beautiful thing has nothing to do with their field of study? And what does someone really see when he or she sees ‘the most beautiful thing’? Those are the surprises in the book. The Leiden researcher Stijn Bussels feels that the Christ and St. John group in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. But it is not just the sculpture itself, he writes. ‘The sculpture becomes even more beautiful to me when I think of those who have looked at it in the past.’ Yoeri Albrecht, director of the De Balie cultural centre in Amsterdam, singled out Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa. But it is not the stylistic or technical perfection that moves Albrecht. No - it is the ‘melancholy of killing’ that is the most beautiful thing that he has ever seen,as if the victor ‘seems to have been moved by the death of the divine monster’.

On the recent CODART study trip to the Midwest I myself saw one of the most beautiful paintings I had ever seen. It was also a very special experience to observe the enthusiasm of the other participants. In the process people ended up balancing precariously on stepladders to discover whether particular paintings were among the most beautiful (interesting, strange, astonishing) that our curators had ever seen. Their reactions? You will find the first report on the study trip in this eZine, and in future issues we will naturally be telling you more about specific results resulting from our visit to the Midwest. New attributions, exhibitions, research projects: we’ll keep you posted. In any event, the experiences gained on the trip, by the CODART members, the museums that welcomed us so hospitably, and the patrons who came on the journey, gave us every reason to investigate the possibility of organizing other study trips in the future.

In the meantime, preparations for next year’s CODART NEGENTIEN congress in Madrid are in full swing. On its subject, ‘Connoisseurship: between Intuition and Science’, we read the following on the congress page: ‘Connoisseurship has long been at the heart of the work of attributing an artwork – that is, associating it with a specific artist, period, and/or location. Ever since the 17th century, attributing works of art has ranked among the foremost tasks of the art historian. Traditionally, attribution is 

predicated on meticulous examination by a connoisseur. Yet for some time now, art-historical attribution has been virtually absent from academic training. Indeed, it has even been denigrated as an unscientific, anachronistic activity. For museums and the art market, however, it has lost none of its significance.’ But what is the connoisseur’s future role? ‘Is it based solely on intuition, or can it be called a kind of science? Do we need technical “evidence” to corroborate a connoisseur’s opinion? Will the voices of connoisseurs continue to make themselves heard in an age that is becoming ever more dominated by technical approaches?’ We could ask, freely citing Viktor&Rolf: is it the intuition or the science that is the deciding factor when it comes to determining what the most beautiful thing is that we have ever seen? And can we measure it? Plenty of material for interesting papers and discussions.

We will be announcing the definite congress programme shortly, but for this eZine we have asked several CODART members to give us their views or experience of connoisseurship in their daily work. Food for thought for a congress that we can start looking forward to already. Note the date in your diaries now, 19-21 June 2016, CODART NEGENTIEN in Madrid!

Curator's Project

Max Friedländer

Connoisseurship. It is a discipline that is inextricably bound up with art history. The introduction of scientific research methods, hesitantly at first but swelling to a flood in the 1970s and 80s, signified an enormous enrichment of art-historical research, and for a while it looked as if subjectivity, the fundamental characteristic of connoisseurship, had been banished forever.

Curator's Collection

Johnson Collection

John G. Johnson bequeathed his collection of 1,279 paintings to the city of Philadelphia in 1917. Among his primary interests were early Netherlandish and seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. Indeed, the Johnson Collection has over 425 early northern European paintings. When combined with the nearly 100 paintings that entered the museum from other sources, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosts one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.

Curator in the spotlight

Elizabeth Morrison

When I was fifteen years old, I took an art history class in my high school in Kansas City, Missouri, and when we arrived at the Middle Ages, I simply fell in love. I also lived within walking distance of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, which has a fine, though small, collection of medieval and Renaissance works. I spent a great deal of time at the museum, and early on realized my deep appreciation for how a museum can influence and enrich its community.

Curator's Interview

Till-Holger Borchert interv...

Till-Holger Borchert studied art history in Bonn, and wrote his thesis about the early work of Hans Memling. In 2002 he became curator at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, where he organized numerous exhibitions. Since December 2014 he has been director of the Bruges Museums, which encompass 14 institutions, including the Gruuthusemuseum, Arentshuis and the Hospitaalmuseum.

Curator's Project

Cornelis Jonson

Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen (1593-1661) has been one of the forgotten figures of seventeenth-century British – and to a certain extent – Dutch portrait painting, yet the characteristics of his style make his work comparatively easy to identify.

Curator's Project

Jheronimus Bosch

‘To paint or to draw always meant to him to invent’, wrote Max J. Friedländer, the great connoisseur of early Netherlandish painting, about Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).  He was praising Bosch’s unorthodoxy, his originality. In the past few years the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has been carrying out intensive research on Bosch’s work, with a special emphasis on the genesis of his paintings. Partly with the aid of systematic infrared photography and reflectography and standardized macrophotography it has been demonstrated that Bosch was indeed the ‘molding inventor’ that Friedländer saw in him. He was a tinkerer, a painter who thinks on the panel, coming up with new ideas and implementing them during the working process. With Bosch there is often a lot going on beneath the painted surface.


Elsbeth van Tets interviewed

Elsbeth van Tets pursued a career marked by dedication to a wide range of cultural institutions, both in Europe and elsewhere. For many years she worked at Sotheby’s. She also sat on the Supervisory Board of the Mauritshuis and the board of the Rembrandt Society. In her supervisory capacity at the Mauritshuis, she was closely involved in the museum's recent renovation. Elsbeth van Tets currently sits on the board of Museum Van Loon and the board of advisers of the Rembrandt Society.

CODART Activities

CODART study trip

The one-week study trip took us from Detroit to Chicago. It was brilliantly organised: we visited the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin including the Weltzheimer / Johnson House by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dayton Art Institute, the Taft Museum of Art (Cincinnati), the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.